Why aren't we talking about the "disability tax"?

The Chancellor presented some pretty unconvincing reasoning in the Autumn Statement.

As Jonathan Portes writes, the Chancellor's explanation for using the Autumn statement to cut spending in real-terms (which includes the "mummy tax", as well what we might call the "poverty tax", "disability tax", "unemployment tax" and "civil servant tax") doesn't stand up.

The Chancellor said:

With pay restraint in businesses and government, average earnings have risen by around 10% since 2007. Out of work benefits have gone up by around 20%. That’s not fair to working people who pay the taxes that fund them.

Portes responds:

The numbers are correct: but they are highly selective… The value of out of work benefits relative to average earnings (and more broadly the incomes of those in work) has fallen steadily over the past three decades, until the recent slight uptick resulting from the recession…

Unless we are stuck in permanent depression, even a modest recovery will in time lead to earnings rising significantly faster than prices, and the relative value of out of work benefits will decline again. No policy action is required to ensure this (although economic recovery would help!).

The Chancellor was also incredibly sneaky in conflating out-of-work benefits with the other, in-work benefits, which he is also cutting, including local housing allowances – a key part of housing benefit – and "elements" of the child tax credit and the working tax credits.

The child tax credit cut is the one which has been dubbed the "mummy tax" – but focusing on that change to the exclusion of others does damage to the point. Even in the Mail's mummy tax story, for instance, the case-study they present is of a woman who stands to lose far more from the housing benefit cuts than the child tax credit ones. And the idea, implicit in the selective complaints, that it is worse to hurt "mummies" than it is to hurt, say, the disabled is distasteful.

While Osborne may have been sloppy in conflating in- and out-of-work benefits, he was smarter than many commentators in not implying that the change was because such benefits were in some way "unsustainable" – a charge levied by, among others, the Sunday Times' David Smith.

Given 53 per cent of welfare spending goes on pensioners (table 3), the real unsustainable change was made in the last budget. In the spring, Osborne announced a "triple lock" for pensions, guaranteeing that they would be uprated by the higher of CPI, average wages or 2.5 per cent. And sure enough, the Autumn Statement saw the state pension uprated by more than either CPI or average wages.

The Chancellor isn't chasing sustainability. He's just attacking the poor.

Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.